Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

January 24, 2017
by leesensei

TellCollab Day 2 – Know Your Goals & “Fail Forward” As You Model Learning!

Day 2 of the #TELLCollab continued my exploration of what an effective language teacher is – and my look at how effective I am/can be as a language teacher. It was a tough call to try to tweet and curate what Alyssa Villarreal shared with us! Needless to say it was also fab to hear her – rather than just read her 140 character tweets. If I could summarize what I took away from her talk it would be in the series of tweets that I sent out…a few standouts for me are my takeaways from this session:

“Fail Forward” and “Practice Makes Progress” – Alyssa reminds us that we spend too much time telling kids what they didn’t do correctly and not enough celebrating their risk in trying something new.  Too much is spent on ‘marking what isn’t right’. Where is the acknowledgement of growth – of improvement? Kids, she says,  are not afraid of something that is “hard” – just look at all the time they spend on video games!  What they want to know is that they can risk and try in a ‘safe’ environment…And why are we questing for perfect? If it is ‘perfect’ then they are not trying, growing and risking. I love this and it is my new mantra for my classes. I always ask them “do you know more than you did yesterday? Are you growing?” Validation that this is a way to go!


Students Need To Know What Their Target Is For Class and For Proficiency – this was also a focus of Thomas Sauer‘s session from Day 1 and it really hit home. There should not be any mystery or guessing as to why students are doing something in class. They should know what the daily goal is. They should also know what the target – proficiency – is for them in the course. They want to know how to be successful. Going back to the video game – they know what level they will achieve if they are successful. That’s why they are playing that game over and over trying to get better. Why am I not spelling out the goal. I do set out my expectations but what I have not done is linked that to what the ‘level’ of achievement will be. Truth be told I’ve never really seen the big deal of telling kids about ‘proficiency’ and what level they are. “Whoop de doo..novice” I thought. But now I am seeing it. The power in the hands of the student to see levels of proficiency in meeting the ‘goals’ not just the expectations for class. I’ve had the expectation but not the explicit goal that they are trying to attain. My goal was just what I expected them to do…not something concrete they could work on to ‘achieve’.  I’m going to work to implement them in my classes – even just starting next year with my incoming students (a gradual implementation for sanity!).

Model and Check More! – I like to think that I have modeled enough – but I realized that this includes all that incidental language I use. “Where is my pen?”  and why am I not muttering out loud in the TL. I will be now! Alyssa also made a powerful statement that if we model, we use the TL and then switch to English we do nothing for out students. That the minute a student knows that the teacher will move to English they just begin to ‘wait them out’ until they do. If we are going to model language use then we model it! This doesn’t mean 90% TL necessarily (no guilt please!) but it DOES mean that we are consistent (to me) in how we use the language in class. And once I model, I need to check more with students before the ‘practice with your partner’ part. More feedback from them – even non-verbally – that they are getting it before I ask them to use it….Duly noted.

And my final takeaway – I need an honest look at what/how I am operating in the classroom. I need to invite an administrator in, ask a colleague to observe or (gasp) get my students to give feedback on how I am doing in my goals for my classroom. Because if I am truly going to ask for risk-taking, fail-forward, goal-focused students then I better be that kind of teacher too. 

Thanks again to the organizing committee of the #tellcollab in Seattle, Thomas Sauer and Alyssa Villarreal for the great weekend of ‘learning’…



May 24, 2016
by leesensei

My Philosophy of “Teaching”? The Opportunity to “Learn”…

IMG_2341One of my favourite #langchat colleagues – Natalia DeLaat – asked me to complete a questionnaire regarding language teaching. It was interesting to be asked about my “philosophy” and how I viewed various aspects of teaching. And, as usual, I learned more about me, what’s important in my classroom, what’s key for my learners, than maybe Natalia will learn in reading it. You may not agree with how I present everything but I hope it causes you to think about what is key for you. I wanted to share it in a post because it shares what I think is common for many teachers – the struggle to find the ‘best’ way to teach.

It started with Natalia asking…”What particular strategies do you find most successful in terms of teaching…”

  • Concepts – I’m all over the map on this. Sometimes I am very direct – especially with cultural things in which we will talk about ‘why’ in English. For example we don’t have a word for “must” – it’s actually a double negative and we talk about ‘why’. As for word order it’s not so key especially in lower level Japanese as long as the correct ‘particle’ (indicating ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘time’, etc) is attached to the word. But I don’t like that term so I call them ‘signals’ that show what/why the word is in the sentence. As for grammar – I tend to introduce in ‘use’ then look as to ‘why’ ‘how’ the rule is being used. Sometimes I ask my students to figure it out discreetly, sometimes we just ‘use it ‘til we get it’. But I always do a review explanation in English – I don’t want any ‘doubts’ – that is in common understandable ‘non-grammar word’ language.
  • Vocabulary   – When we first start students cannot read the language at all and we rely heavily on picture cues for words.  Now, I like to teach a base set of vocabulary for each unit. I know many are into ‘student selected’ but I also think we need an agreed upon amount that we all understand. We always have a section in our unit book for ‘things we want to know’ to allow for choice & variety. I introduce a lot of vocabulary via picture cards. We may see some in a story (with pictures) that they read, we may see some via a more TPRS story that I tell and then they re-tell with pictures. When I ask students what helps them to learn most many say ‘the picture cards!’.
  • Grammar  –  Often done via story – with the ‘rule’ either explicitly up there for referral or implicitly taught via questioning and expanding on the point with students. “Nonki likes to do what?” “Ah he likes to ski.” “Do you like to ski?”…etc I do know that my biggest thing in teaching grammar is not teaching ‘grammar’. I have worked to refine how I teach to ‘describing word, action word, who we are talking about, ~ly word’ etc.. I now test a lot of these concepts, after we’ve worked with them, via a pop-check in that sees ‘what they have in their brain about a concept’ and is marked only for completion after (of corrections). But I will confess to doing some practice via old ‘workbook’ exercises – just a few to see that we all ‘get it’. Yes I admit that…. 🙂
  • Reading/Writing – The Skills –  I have to teach my students how to read as they must master 3 scripts for Japanese. I have changed a lot in my approach to this. In Yr1 for the first orthography I used to teach & discreetly test the ‘chart’. Then for the words that used a script we didn’t introduce until Yr2 I would use English letters to phonetically spell that out. Why?????? NOW I do not have my students read or write until they have a bank of phrases/words that they know how to use well orally. Our first unit is Yr 1 is ‘All About Me’ and there is minimal reading/writing until they know a fair number of Q/A’s for this. So then reading becomes a discovery of what we already know. Now I teach the script and ‘test’ it via them writing out phrases we have already learned to say. As for the 2nd orthography – I introduce it as soon as we have the first one down (putting it overtop of the 2nd orthography to read it) so that they see it used naturally. As for the 3rd script, Chinese characters, we introduce those slowly in a kind of ‘isn’t this exciting it’s like pieces of lego that you put together to make a picture’ kind of way. Keep in mind over 50% of most of my classes are immigrants from a Chinese background so the stress for me is on equity.
  • Reading text – authentic documents – I do not use a lot of true authentic documents unless they are ‘reachable’ by all students in my classes in an equitable way. There are 1900+ Chinese characters that can be used in Japanese and we study about 400 in my Yr 1-4 classes. By equitable I meant that my students from a Chinese character background (who can see a character, know the meaning, but not know how to say it) can’t have the advantage. So in using #AuthRes I either use only the parts that I can, or modify the resource. I also create my own from authentic student info. We also use ‘graded readers’ – adapted stories adapted by Japanese for Japanese learners.  So for me ‘authentic’ is ‘authentic as I can get to ensure that all students experience success in using the language’.
  • Communicating – speaking & listening together – The key is ‘do-able’ and the focus in my courses is on communicating information.
    • Speaking- Speaking is always done in a small group – at the minimum a partner – that is sometimes chosen by me and sometimes by them. This is to encourage risk, support more hesitant learners and build skills. I do almost ‘no’ presentational speaking to the ‘group’ but a lot of it to a single person or 3 other people. If we are speaking as a ‘group’ students are called upon (after they have had a chance to prep with a partner) and always given a chance to ‘come up with the answer’ (I expect them all to be ready to go and don’t often ask for volunteers). That requires essential skills such as follow-up questions, rephrasing and circumlocution. It also involves developing the confidence to know when you know don’t and be able to ask for assistance in understanding. We work a lot on all of these aspects. There’s a lot of learning that can happen as you use the same skills to work with 5-6 people in a room in a controlled amount of time. We start in short bursts with the Yr1’s and work up from there to Yr4 where students are expected to sustain and develop their skills in much longer periods of time. Speaking is always evaluated as to meeting/fully meeting expectations and students are well aware, before a formal evaluation, of what each level of achievement entails.
    • Listening – discrete – most of my listening comes in the form of either ‘listening’ to others and responding/reacting appropriately or, yes wait for it, listening to a conversation or exercise for discreet reasons. I don’t do a ton of ‘authentic listening’ in the early years as students have not learned the ‘casual’ form or the highly ‘honorific’ form of the language used either in regular shows or on more formal broadcasts. No matter what we are ‘listening to’ the student knows that they will receive the information more than once or, in the case of conversations, have the opportunity to ask/clarify to understand. If we are listening for an evaluation students will always be listening in the TL and ‘answering’ in English
  • Writing skills – I used to be really focused on written skills especially formal piece written skills – because we had a provincially mandated exam that was writing based. Now I do far less formal summative writing than I used to do and I am working to help them improve their writing. I do a lot of oral activities (draw & share) involving concepts that also ask them to ‘write’ the concept and then I mark for correctness (they have to correct it and when done it gets a completed mark) I’ve started doing the occasional ‘workshop’ day (thanks Amy Lenord!) where we focus specifically on this skill. On written evaluations I allow them to bring in a list of ‘concepts’ in English that we have looked at (drawn from our “I can” statements). I feel that I am testing their ability to ‘use’ the language not to remember what we know how to say. I try to provide rubrics that explicitly assist a student in understanding what ‘meeting/fully meeting etc’ entails. I have gone to several ‘in class’ writes that are done ‘open book’. I’m trying to change it up and not just ‘test’ writing one way. The summative writing that I do is almost always tied to information gained in the oral (interactive) or used in an interpersonal oral – but asking them to expand, go deeper, explain why etc.. I guess for different ways to ‘test’ writing….formative and summative.

Thank you again for asking Natalia…I learned a lot…and mostly that I have more to learn!




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